Will the Gonski reforms mean higher teacher salaries?

Great teachers inspire their students profoundly and provide a foundation from which learning is optimally facilitated. They often do not just teach the required material; rather, they show students the process of learning and thus enable them to achieve academically without as much direct teacher instruction and support. Perhaps the greatest problem facing Australia’s education system is that we simply do not have enough of these great teachers. Worse still, based on the recent widely reported falls in both of (1) clearly-in ATAR requirements for teaching and (2) the number of first round university preferences from those achieving an ATAR of greater than 90, the quality of the average teacher does not seem to be about to improve anytime soon. While a high ATAR obviously does not necessarily make you a suitable teacher by any means, it is hard to see how someone who clearly has not been able to master their own subjects – and also achieve highly in the education system themselves – will have the potential to become an effective teacher. The only way to correct the misalignment between top students’ university preferences and the corresponding demand for teaching from those with a high level of proven ability is to make it a profession of first choice. Status matters when it comes to students’ university course selection and overseas examples such as Finland are a clear example of the exceptional educational outcomes that can be achieved when teaching is seen as a degree on par with law and medicine. A large part of the promotion of teaching as a profession of first choice comes down to pay. Individuals require incentives to change their behaviour and it is difficult to foresee the above-described status quo changing any time soon without a catalyst.

It would be quite reasonable to think that education reform with the hype of the Gonski proposals would be almost certain to address the salary level of Australia’s teachers. The reality, however, is that unfortunately it does not. Currently, teaching salaries are determined at a state level on a state-by-state basis and this will not change under the Gillard Government’s proposed Gonski reform package. So, where exactly will the extra money – $14.5 billion over the next six years if the states agree to the proposed new funding arrangement – be going? The core stated directions are: smaller class sizes; extra specialist teachers in areas such as literacy and numeracy; greater support for students with higher needs such as those with disabilities; and, additional training and classroom support for teachers. These pursuits are undoubtedly worthwhile, but surely some of the additional funds could, and ultimately perhaps should, be directed to increasing teachers’ salaries if we want Australian students to be taught by the best and brightest? While the Gonski package is just the main element of the Gillard Government’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI) – which does make reference in relation to teaching to “achieving higher entry standards for the teaching profession, annual performance assessments and ongoing training and support” – the actual teacher pay paradigm is not an aspect covered by the NPSI/Gonski reform agenda.

Interestingly, more than half of the $14.5 billion figure quoted as the Gillard Government proposed Federal-State Gonski package is not forecast to be allocated to schools until 2018 and 2019. While some are disappointed that the funding increases are only going to increase relatively slowly and, perhaps more significantly, are not as large as what the 2011 Gonski report called for, the structure of the proposal should make it more politically expedient. Fiscal limitations on many of the states are arguably even greater than that of the commonwealth and they have only until Gillard’s 30 June deadline to sign up. Private interest theory – the theory that politicians will make rational choices based on their own objectives when in a decision-making position – suggests that state governments will be unwilling to sign on the dotted line unless there is a lot in it for them politically. While Gillard may be attempting to make education and the NBN the focus of the September 14 election (focus group research is believed to show them as Labor’s two most popular policies), the state premiers have no such interest in education being a positive policy area in 2013.

‘Gonski’ has in recent times come to be seen as a term for all education policy improvements. The Labor party has adopted the (David) Gonski name as a marketing tool that it hopes will become progressively ingrained in voters’ minds.  The drawback with such an approach, however, is that most of the nation has no idea what the Gonski related policy package actually is. The Gonski education reforms – the first major review of school funding mechanisms in Australia for 40 years – are at their heart about allocating scarce fiscal resources. In relation to improving the funding model through the implementation of needs based allocation, Gonski goes as far as what could ever be politically expedient in pertinence to addressing the growing inequality of opportunity currently provided to those individuals immersed in low socio-economic environments. However, substantial more policy reform – going beyond the Gillard government’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI) by setting out policy to ensure teaching salaries increase – is needed to facilitate social cohesion, greater economic growth and the provision of widespread opportunity as all truly great education systems do.

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4 thoughts on “Will the Gonski reforms mean higher teacher salaries?”

  1. Brilliant article Lachlan. It’s amazing that State and Federal Governments are both so reluctant to address teacher salaries. Piecemeal philanthropic ventures like ‘Teach for Australia’ really have no hope of meaningfully raising the status of teaching so as to attract and retain a critical mass of smart and talented people. It really does come down to salaries.

    Following the recent Vic pay outcome some newspapers (ie Herald Sun) were bemoaning how much it would cost taxpayers to foot the bill…yeah, it’s your children folks…..

    • Thanks Monika!

      I entirely agree that raising teachers’ salaries is the best policy to ensure that widespread teaching quality is maintained and, in the longer term, hopefully improved.

      Regarding the TFA program, while it isn’t a holistic policy solution, I am personally in favour of it. Despite many of the TFA teachers choosing to not continue after the compulsory two years are up, a central advantage of the program is driving a cultural shift in the wider community about the importance of education and addressing educational disadvantage. TFA program graduates would ostensibly often spread the message in their careers in business, government, etc. after they have finished teaching.

  2. It’d be extremely difficult for the Federal government to come in and supplement teacher pay on a state-by-state basis. Firstly, I don’t think any state government would appreciate having their toes stepped on in such a manner; and secondly, where’s any funding for it going to come from on a Federal level? Besides, state-by-state seems to work well enough as it is (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/teachers-win-big-pay-deal-20130417-2i0nr.html) so if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

    You cannot simply entice more graduates to take up teaching as a career by offering them more money. It’ll help, sure, but there are factors which cannot be overcome by merely throwing more money at them.

    Finland’s education system is the best in the world, as rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit. And it’s completely different to what we have here in Australia: kids don’t start school until the age of 7, there’s very little testing or examinations or even homework during primary school, all students are taught the same in the same classrooms, their science class sizes are capped at 16, their school system is entirely state funded, all the teachers have a masters degree in education as a minimum requirement and are selected from the top 10% of graduates, and they have the same level of prestige and social status as doctors or lawyers. (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html)

    So perhaps the question is not “how can we improve teacher salaries”, but rather, “how can we make teaching more socially acceptable?”. Once we can achieve that, then increased salary will follow. Identifying a single factor, such as pay, no matter how important, ignores the overall picture in trying to overhaul the entire education system, as Gillard is aiming to do. The Victorian education system has worked fine these past 18 months despite the union action and low pay, so why keep making it an issue?

    • Thanks for the detailed comment Oliver!

      Here’s a response to some of the points that you raise:

      •While I didn’t outline how teaching salaries could be increased in this article, it wouldn’t actually be as difficult as many pundits suggest. Even if the Commonwealth just supplemented every existing state teacher salary by a uniform amount of say $5k there would be an additional incentive for individuals to consider teaching more.
      •Regarding the states having their toes stepped on, the Commonwealth is effectively already doing this with the current funding mix and will do so even more with the proposed Gonski reform package.
      •In terms of funding, I tried to imply throughout the article that perhaps it would make sense for some of the Gonski funds to be allocated to increasing teachers’ salaries. I believe that this would be more efficient use of scarce funds than some elements of the proposed plan.
      •I fundamentally disagree that the state based teaching salary system “seems to work well enough as it is” simply because, as mentioned in the article, teaching is not attracting enough quality students.
      •However, I do completely agree that salary isn’t the only determinant in attracting quality individuals to teach — but it is quite possibly, rightly or wrongly, the single best policy mechanism available to make teaching a profession of first choice.

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